A couple in their 50s recently arrived at a Buick dealership in Chelsea, Mich., looking for an attractive sedan with decent fuel economy. They left in a LaCrosse with a four-cylinder engine teamed with General Motors' new mild hybrid system.
The buyers were a far cry from the green types who do exhaustive research before plunking down money for a Toyota Prius or Nissan Leaf. They were trading in a Buick and had never heard of GM's system, dubbed "eAssist."
Mild hybrids such as eAssist use an electric motor to assist the gasoline engine but can't propel the vehicle on their own. The technology has occupied a low-key spot along the spectrum of alternative powertrains. But that's about to change -- even though, in GM's case, the "hybrid" label is avoided.
"We just explained that this is a new technology that allows a sizable car to get an extra 5 or 6 mpg in an inexpensive way," says Lance Underwood, general sales manager at Chelsea Chevrolet-Buick.
GM is the first automaker to introduce mild hybrids in a big way, adding the technology to high-volume models. This fall GM began selling it on the 2012 LaCrosse and Buick Regal. (The four-cylinder LaCrosse with eAssist, for example, gets 25 mpg in city driving and 36 on the highway compared with 19/30 mpg for the outgoing four-cylinder model.) It will be on the Eco version of the redesigned Chevrolet Malibu this spring.
A few other automakers offer mild hybrid technology, sometimes called "light electrification," though none is deploying it as aggressively as GM. Honda pioneered the technology in the late 1990s with the Insight before focusing more on full hybrids, though it still sells a mild hybrid: the new CR-Z coupe. BMW and Mercedes-Benz co-developed a mild hybrid system that both companies offer on their range-topping vehicles.
GM is aiming eAssist at what some analysts view as a sweet spot in the market for electrified powertrains. A mild hybrid system costs a buyer about a quarter of what a conventional hybrid system costs but can deliver about half the added fuel savings.
The eAssist option on the Buick Regal is $2,000. GM estimates that a buyer who drives 15,000 miles a year will offset that cost in fuel savings over 3 1/2 years if gasoline prices average $4 a gallon.
Success could nudge a whole new breed of customers into the hybrid realm. GM executives are betting that plenty of consumers will like the cost-benefit equation.
"It's a little more money, but those are some big fuel economy numbers," GM North America President Mark Reuss told Automotive News last week. "I think people are ready for that."